Strictly speaking, Alf’s hours were nine till twelve, five days a week. But his employers got a lot more out of him than these hours suggested, because he liked to stay longer. Alf found that when he really got involved with something, it was hard to stop.
He could think of no good reason to interrupt his pleasure by doing something boring like going home, and that was on the rare occasion he thought about it at all. He had, however, been advised to think about it by his doctor, Dr Anand, and he’d found, to his satisfaction, that thinking about something was very different to doing something about it. Thinking about things was fun, in fact, because it showed he was trying and could give himself the pat on the back he knew, deep down, he didn’t deserve.
So he was thinking about that as well. There really was no end to the things he could think about, even more or less at the same time.
He liked repetitive work best of all, because he was a perfectionist. 'Practice makes perfect' had repeatedly been drummed into him as a child, but it wasn’t true. 'Many a slip between cup and lip' was the counterclaim he’d heard advanced, mainly by his mother, Janice. The more you tried to get things right, the more the mistakes crept in. Perfection wasn’t possible, which was why he was a perfectionist.
He’d found that out even before he’d been diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. ‘Moderate’ OCD, his mother had been told, and it would remain so for as long as it was carefully managed. Doctor Anand was very kind.
Which left him trying to get things as perfect as they could possibly be. 'No harm in trying' he’d been told by countless individuals, and he was only too happy to oblige. It was the kind of platitude you heard a lot with an OCD diagnosis, especially when people who thought they were helping realized they were only making things worse.
It seemed to Alf that his supervisor Sam didn’t like it if he stayed even five minutes beyond his finishing time. Alf knew he tended to get carried away to the exclusion of everything else.
He got the distinct impression that Sam didn’t think perfection was worth aspiring to, and, from his strenuously disdainful, even offhand, manner, he assumed Sam considered it a lost cause, not even a remote possibility. Alf could have told him so because he’d found out for himself, but it was the last thing he’d say to a supervisor. The revelation might be cataclysmic, perhaps even life-changing, final confirmation that all human activity was doomed to failure.
But Alf preferred not to think of it like that. He was, as usual, getting himself worked up unnecessarily.
Normally, around the time Alf was due to go home and he’d entered a state of complete immersion in the sensory deprivation tank of his work, Sam would turn up, his head appearing around the end of the row of books Alf was working on. Acknowledging Alf with a flick of the head, he’d step into the aisle whilst keeping his distance, tilting quizzically. It was as if Alf’s continuing presence, though tiresomely predictable, was a logical improbability his brain was unwilling to contend with.
He’d present Alf with the usual question.
“Know what time it is, Alf?”
Alf had no idea. It was only Sam’s arrival, and doubtful tone, that alerted him.
“Just finishing,” he’d say.
Alf was happy to play along. As an employee with a declared mental health condition, he fully expected a gentle guiding hand to help him on his way, ensuring he wasn’t working more hours than were specified on his contract. Sam was conscientious with him, and Alf didn’t mind the occasional firmness of tone that reminded him who was boss and that he wouldn’t be allowed to bend the rules, not that Alf had ever been such a person.
It made him feel almost naughty, as if being really naughty was within the bounds of possibility. It was, he thought, like having a hidden power he could resort to at the point of imminent disaster or when the fate of the world depended on it.
“Lovely day out there,” Sam would assert confidently with his back to the windows. “You should make the most of it.”
He seemed to be saying that it was always a lovely day outside the workplace, beyond the miasma of gloom that followed employees around once they’d entered the building where they spent most of their waking hours. Sam with his bouncy high spirits was always the exception to the rule but Alf’s response would be to look beyond his supervisor to the deeply recessed windows beyond, quickly registering weather conditions that were less than lovely.
It was seldom an invitation to enjoy the great outdoors, though Alf had to concede that the grey sludge framed in the windows wasn’t necessarily indicative of conditions at ground level. Sometimes Alf fantasized he was working in a submarine, for what could be more conducive to hard work than the relentless boredom and gnawing fear of doing otherwise? As for Sam, the conditions he was alluding to were most likely the conditions of the micro-climate he himself inhabited and carried around everywhere, the climate of an eternal optimist.
And when Alf was delving in his locker for his belongings, Sam would often cross the windowless anteroom where the lockers were located, glancing in Alf’s direction before pausing at the door. “Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do,” he’d quip before disappearing.
The locker cabinets, each containing three compartments, reminded Alf of Japanese capsule hotels he’d seen on TV. The lock was so basic that, as he’d discovered when he’d mislaid the key, it would burst open with a well-aimed kick. In his locker he lodged the rucksack containing his daily essentials, his bank card, wallet, smartphone and present choice of reading from the local library. Together with his overcoat, they were tightly packed like explosives.
Sam was fond of describing the lock as a “deterrent”, which suggested to Alf a nuclear weapon. But nuclear weapons were designed to be devastatingly effective and rarely, if ever, used, whereas the lockers were in constant use though they were useless.
What Sam probably meant was that their very appearance was a deterrent, like a nuclear capability. And it was workplace inertia he was addressing, the in-built resistance to replacing the lockers with something better. It was inadvisable to use them but people did so because there was no alternative beyond dragging everything around with you, especially for shelvers like Alf.
Occasionally Sam would linger expectantly, standing in the doorway or wedging the door open with his foot. Alf allowed himself to be driven out but sometimes his supervisor’s patience frayed when he dilly-dallied, checking that nothing, absolutely nothing, was left behind.
“You’re not being paid overtime, you know. Don’t stay any longer than you have to, Alf, I wouldn’t.”
By now Sam would be filling the doorway, presenting an obstruction. Blocking off the exit appeared to be his own unique way of encouraging Alf to use it, challenging him to overcome the obstacle standing in his way.
Alf would quite happily have worked extra hours for free. He often wondered if he’d ever be offered overtime or if he’d been knowingly overlooked for it because he’d be inclined to stretch it out indefinitely, claiming he was doing overtime whenever he was caught working outside his regular hours. It was obvious to Alf that staying late was seen as symptomatic of his problems rather than selfless dedication to his work.
In any case, he had no interest in starting all over again and tending to tasks that were beyond his usual range of responsibilities. He wanted to do more of the same without interruption, which meant shelving books. Alf wanted his normal routine ad infinitum.
He wanted to shelve books forever, with no end in sight. And that meant it could never be considered overtime. Overtime was, just as the word suggested, another category of time altogether and a rupture of his own private space-time continuum.
Alf noticed it usually meant going somewhere else to await further instructions. It wasn’t only time they were demanding of you but competencies above and beyond those you’d developed so diligently in the course of your employment. It was like training for a job you’d never do again, doing the work someone else should have done.
No, Alf didn’t like the idea of overtime.
Alf appreciated Sam because he was a support and a rock. But there were times when he wished he’d just leave him alone.
Sam was the casual type and wore a minimum of loose-fitting clothes that enabled him to ricochet around the building and appear unexpectedly wherever you happened to be, though there was a predictability to his unexpected appearances that put people on their guard. He was the kind of person who braved a cold winter’s day in jeans and T-shirt, often a charcoal-grey one that didn’t show the wear and tear. His hair never got longer, testament to a regime of haircuts that was, Alf imagined, military in its regularity though a ruff of it rolled glossily over the nape of his neck, giving him the look of a raw recruit who hadn’t wholeheartedly succumbed to military discipline.
There was a grace to him, a lithe economy of movement that suggested he might have made a dancer. Some well-meaning individual had once told Alf that everybody had a talent, it was just a question of finding it. It was probably true, Alf thought, but with OCD it might be micro-managing library shelves so that any discrepancies occurred at the subatomic level. For Sam it might be the refinement of his daily rounds into a modern dance routine, not that Alf would ever dare say so.
But he might, one day, be unable to stop himself expressing admiration for his supervisor’s gazelle-like agility. Otherwise, Sam’s special talent would go unrecognized, requiring some passing impresario to spot his gifts and bring them to public attention, even if Sam had to be dragged away kicking and screaming.
His outstanding talent was therefore channeled into ensuring Alf went home when he was supposed to, just when Alf was beginning to enjoy himself and didn’t want to go home at all.
When it came to applying for his job, it had been up to Alf to declare his disability. This admission meant that any reasonable adjustment could be made if it helped him fulfil his duties. But it seemed to him that his difficulty lay in doing too much too efficiently, which reflected badly on others and was a worry for all concerned. The price of any reasonable adjustment was Sam’s perpetual vigilance, compromising Alf’s productivity but not his never-ending workload. It was, thought Alf, like being asked to clear snow in a blizzard using a bucket and spade.
He was beginning to understand that this was one of the fundamental rules of work or, as Sam described it, “time management”. You were expected to look busy whilst doing as little as possible to justify the appearance.
Alf would have heartily recommended someone with OCD to an employer. They were capable of completing a picture to a resolution that made the eyes water. The work mountain would be levelled, but perhaps that wasn’t the point. Work made jobs and if there wasn’t enough work there wouldn’t be enough jobs. It had to be spread thinly to ensure there was enough to go around.
He’d been on a six month contract at first. But that was before they’d realised the force of nature they’d unleashed on the fifth floor, Social Sciences.
Sam leaned forward over the meeting room table, a weighty, monumental edifice that helped instill an air of muted anticipation whilst people sat around waiting for proceedings to begin. But, because there was only Alf and his supervisor, the lengthy expanse of the table’s polished surface languished in the watery light from the windows. It was a listlessness Sam, by the look of his uncharacteristic agitation, was finding hard to counter.
He bunched his hands into fists and nudged his A4 notebook forward but it didn’t seem to help, making Alf wonder if he should say something himself. Then Sam stretched and gathered himself up, snapping out of his lethargy.
“I want to start by saying we’re extremely pleased with your work, Alf. More than pleased, in fact. I know we said there might be the possibility of extending your contract for another six months, and we’d be happy to do so. Your work, and I don’t say this lightly, has been exceptional.”
Alf was seated at the end of the table, close to the door for the quick exit he always dreamed of making but never did. He could see that Sam, squinting across evasively, was finding it difficult to look him in the eye.
He noticed that the sturdy table was on castors and pictured himself pushing it out onto a vast, frozen lake, abandoning it there. Or he’d give it a final push and watch it skitter off into the frozen wasteland before it fell through the ice to orchestrate its own hushed audience underwater. It hadn’t escaped him that it was a boardroom table, and he imagined it sitting on the bottom of the lake, commanding a silence that was the silence of an empty room but without any hope of it being broken.
“Even the vice-chancellor has remarked how tidy the books are,” said Sam. “Before you arrived they were a bit of a mess, to put it mildly. We very nearly gave up hope.”
Sam’s eyes widened but, from his strained smile, it was clear he was still struggling. Alf suspected it was the formality he found difficult but there was a peculiar role reversal going on in which Alf had become the observer, unable to keep his eyes off his supervisor’s discomfort.
“And the cleaners. Even the cleaners have”-
Sam pulled back with a jerk, splaying his fingers on the table. He nodded earnestly. “So what do you think, Alf? Are you happy with your job?”
Alf sat up, acknowledging his supervisor briefly before his gaze lifted to the PowerPoint screen above his head. It hung suspended like an empty thought bubble.
The ghost of a smile flickered on his lips. “I like it. I like what I do,” he said.
“Good, it’s the least you deserve. And if you don’t mind me saying, we all remarked after your interview that you seemed like the type who’ll just get on with it, who isn’t frightened of hard work. There are plenty of overqualified people who think they’ll just stroll into the job and aren’t prepared to put in the hard graft.”
Alf felt the seat of his chair jut against the back of his knees. Sam looked across, his chin jutting out over his open notebook.
“What I’ve been meaning to ask you is- is there anything we could do differently, that would make things easier for you?”
Alf dreaded the kind of question that made an exception of him and had started to think that, mercifully, one would never come up. All he could think of was to have a box of chocolates delivered every day in a fancy presentation box that stopped him eating them all at once, but he was certain such a concession was irrelevant to his specific disability.
Sam, acknowledging his unease, scanned his notes like a conscientious exam invigilator. “There doesn’t have to be, of course”-
He hesitated and Alf shuffled uneasily in response, sensing he was expected to speak. Sam tapped the blunt end of his pen on the table. “We just have to be sure about these things. If there is, you will let us know, won’t you? Things don’t just come up when you want them to, we do realise that.”
He was leaning forward expectantly. Alf sat very upright, acutely aware of the awkward posture he was stuck in, a petrified alertness that seized him whenever he knew he was being pressurized to speak.
Sam frowned. “What I’d like you to take away from this meeting is that we’re more than pleased with your work. And remember what I said about permanent vacancies. They do crop up occasionally, if that’s what you want, Alf.”
He peered across with narrowed eyes and Alf accepted his reassuring smile gratefully, immediately feeling a little less stuck. He was settling into a slightly less uncomfortable posture when Sam took to his feet abruptly, scraping back his chair. He stood over the table, beaming, then drummed his knuckles lightly on the table edge.
“All right, Alf. Class dismissed,” he said.
Sam’s little joke wasn’t lost on Alf but he wasn’t sure it was the kind of joke you were supposed to laugh at. So he watched Sam raise himself to his usual straight-backed height, his desire to be elsewhere beginning to reveal itself. He crackled with restless energy, giving the impression he was uncontainable in any present state he found himself.
“So, shall we?” said Sam, sweeping up his notebook and pens from the table, a hopeful lilt in his voice. “I would have thought you, of all people, would only be too happy to get back to work.”
He stood expectantly, hovering. If Sam was implying something, Alf, in his confusion, couldn’t think what. Always wrong-footed by his supervisor's stop-start gear changes, he sat there in anxious immobility, joints creaking from having remained too long in one position.
Grinning eagerly, Sam reached the door in one swooping stride to hold it open.